Bobby Healy (Manna Drone Delivery): “We get almost no complaints”

Every day, Manna Drone Delivery‘s drones deliver meals and groceries to customers in two suburbs of the Irish capital Dublin. After a successful start in Ireland, Manna is working on expanding to six other European countries, starting in 2023. In an exclusive interview with Dronewatch, Manna founder Bobby Healy takes a closer look at the concerns of (Dutch) regulators and citizens. “Come to Ireland and see what we do. We get almost no complaints.”

Food from heaven

Manna (literally: food from heaven) Drone Delivery was founded in 2019 by Bobby Healy. The company focuses on realizing commercial drone delivery services. Backed by investments of more than $30 million, the startup was able to develop a drone that can deliver orders of a few kilos to addresses within a few miles of the take-off location. Once at its destination, the order is delivered to the ground by means of a winch. For example in a garden or in a driveway. The drone hovers at a height of about 15 meters, out of reach of people and animals on the ground.

In early 2020, Manna started operations at a campus south of Dublin. Later, the suburb of Balbriggan was added. The company has now performed tens of thousands of flights, without significant incidents. According to Manna, one employee can oversee several drones and therefore realize twenty deliveries per hour, ten times as much as a delivery person can achieve on the road in the same time frame. Ultimately, this would make drone delivery not only faster and cheaper, but also more environmentally friendly than road-based delivery methods. And also with less congestion on the roads as a result.

The MNA-1090 drone is resistant to rain, has a cruising height of 80 meters and achieves a top speed of up to 80 km/h.

Ireland first

Initially, Manna focused on realizing drone delivery in Ireland. To this end, the company worked closely with the Irish aviation authority IAA. Because safety comes first. Just like an airline, Manna must also meet strict requirements in terms of procedures, airworthiness of aircraft and training of personnel. After all, they fly over populated areas. “And a business can only be built if the public trusts us,” said Healy.

Currently, Manna operates in two Dublin suburbs, with a total population of 45,000. Hundreds of customers use the drone delivery service every day. They place their orders via the Manna app at affiliated restaurants, branches of Ben & Jerry’s or supermarket chain Tesco. The order will be delivered within a few minutes. An additional advantage of test runs in Ireland is that the weather is often bad. “If we can make it work here, it will work anywhere in the world,” Healy often remarks during presentations.

International expansion

That ‘all over the world’ is not meant as a joke. At the end of 2022, Manna will serve an even larger suburb of Dublin. International expansion is on the agenda from 2023. Initially to 70 delivery areas in six other European countries, and also to the US in the same period.

Healy does not want to say which EU countries it concerns, but the Netherlands is almost certainly not part of that list. Although uniform European regulations for drones have been in place for some time now, there are major differences in how vigorously the various EU Member States implement them. The Netherlands is certainly not leading the way in this regard.

Interview

You may not be able to imagine it, but it is inevitable that drone delivery will also be offered as a new delivery method in the Netherlands and other EU countries at some point. Maybe by Manna, but there are also other players gearing up to offer drone delivery. The fact that the EU sees a lot of potential in drone services and therefore encourages innovations such as drone delivery. As a result, the lower part of the airspace below 120 meters is commercialized.

But what about security, nuisance and privacy? Why is the Netherlands currently lagging behind when it comes to drone flights at greater distances (BVLOS)? What about the cost per delivery? To answer these and other questions, Dronewatch conducted an exclusive interview with Manna founder Bobby Healy.

Before we start with the interview… What was the last thing you actually had delivered by drone?

“I’ve NEVER ordered – we don’t cover my house – but our NEXT location in Dublin will reach my house and my “go to” order will be coffee and scone. Every morning.”

What is the max radius of each hub? And the max delivery weight? And average delivery time after take-off?

“3-5km radius is perfect we think, operating in rain and 15 metres/second winds. Weight 3.5kg and volume 30,000 cubic cm. Delivery time depends on radius, but we currently fly at up to 25m/s (airspeed) so our average delivery time (outbound flight) is 2m40s.”

Assuming that your drones operate under 500 ft in uncontrolled airspace, how do you prevent airproxes or even collisions with other aircraft such as (recreational) drones flown in the Open category, SAR helicopters, air balloons and other low flying aircraft which might not see Manna’s drones and/or disclose their positions to your control room? 

“We use observers in the town for things like air balloons, and use ADSB for cooperative aircraft. Ultimately, electronic conspicuity will be necessary at scale and we believe the U-Space standards address that well.”

You operate in the Specific category if I’m not mistaken. Will all operations in the 6 new countries fall under your LUC? Did you have to change anything in order to meet new requirements? 

“Correct. Our LUC [Light UAS Operator Certificate] covers our current operation EU-wide.”

Which SAIL level applies to your drone flights? Which main mitigation measures did you apply in order to fulfil the safety requirements? 

“SAIL level II. Once we receive our EASA Design Verification (estimating end 2022) we will move to SAIL IV, and operate BVLOS in 2023.”

How would you describe the mindset of the CAA’s of the 6 EU countries you’re expanding into? What do you as a drone delivery service provider need from a local CAA in order to be able to operate?

“For the CAAs we’re in conversation with, we see very positive engagement and a willingness to learn from what we’ve achieved in Ireland with the IAA.”

Here in the Netherlands, BVLOS operations remain a big challenge. Everyone seems to be waiting for U-space. Even trials with medical delivery drones are only allowed in temporary corridors. The CAA is very risk averse. What would your advice to our CAA be?

“Come to Ireland and look at what we’re doing. There is no reason to be afraid of BVLOS operated by responsible operators and with certified technology. And don’t’ start in urban settings.”

What will UTM/U-space enable that is not possible now?

“Legal responsibility clearly defined, and harmonious, cooperative integration between traditional aviation and our industry.”

Which factors are taken into account when Manna designs possible flight paths? Or are flight paths generated dynamically based on drop-off location only?

“We generate them dynamically (see image below), and randomise certain parts to avoid “highways”. We have simple heuristics that allow us to minimise annoyance, and we avoid flying over schools, or places of very high population density. Outside of that we fly as the crow flies to optimise for energy.”

What is Manna’s reaction to people who are concerned about their privacy or about noise pollution? 

“We have virtually zero complaints, and the ones we get are around people not wanting robots flying around. Noise is not an issue for our aircraft, nor is privacy as we have zero recording equipment on board outside of flight logs. And we collect no customer information.

We do allow people to voice their concerns through our app and on social media, but have as I said – a sum total of <10 complaints from serving a population of 45,000 residents of the 2 towns we operate in.”

Do you foresee a role for local/municipal authorities, with regards to drone delivery and/or UAM? What role(s) would that be?

“Yes, they are a stakeholder that represents the community. Currently, Manna have an excellent relationship with the local councils where we fly and they provide an important forum for discussion with the residents ahead of our rollout. Usually, it’s the local authorities that ask us to operate in their areas, and that’s driven by the (correct) believe we bring a lot of jobs with us.”

During a recent webinar, you said that some people just don’t want drones flying above their heads or houses, period. Can you understand these people’s concerns? What would you like to say to them?

“That’s right. Of course, they are entitled to complain, and we respect and try to address their concerns, but the fact is that 98% of the residents and pretty much ALL of the local businesses want drone delivery. Progress is never embraced by 100% of the population. The important thing is that we are transparent and respect everyone’s view and provide as much information and transparency as is practical.”

Could you tell me what the costs per delivery are right now? And what will the costs per delivery be in a couple of years from now?

“What I can tell you is that currently we lose money on every delivery, but that we do have a clear path (post Design Verification) to a profitable service, and we expect to reach unit profitability in 2023.

We currently charge about 4 EUR for most deliveries, and 1 EUR for milk delivery and other “staples”. Longer term, we’d expect drone delivery to be a part of most people’s daily lives and would be far more cost effective (and time effective) than road-based delivery.”

Flash delivery seems to be the next big trend in some EU countries. But already there are many concerns about their bike couriers and dark stores. Do you think that drone delivery is the ultimate enabler for companies such as Gorillas, Zapp and Getir?

“100% yes. With our service, all of these businesses become viable in suburbs – which most of them are not now.”

Wiebe de Jager

Wiebe de Jager is the founder of Dronewatch (available in Dutch and English). Wiebe is an experienced drone pilot (EASA Specific category certified) and has published a number of bestselling books about drone photography and cinematography.

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